The third “Bulgarian” exhibition at the Louvre presents us as European Turkey


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The media informed at Christmas 2019 that the Louvre had confirmed the third Bulgarian exhibition, tentatively titled Art and Cultures in Bulgaria (16th–18th cc.). The cooperation agreement was in fact concluded with the Paris museum back in the days of Corr. Mem. Vezhdi Rashidov in his capacity as the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Bulgaria, and the discussions about the third Bulgarian exhibition began in 2017, when representatives of the museum visited Bulgaria with Ms Charlotte Maury on the delegation.

I talked with Ms Charlotte Maury from the Louvre during her visit to Sofia in the summer of 2019, intending to offer my wholehearted support of an expert in Christian art for the upcoming exhibition. That was in fact what the Ministry of Culture and experts from museums, the National Library and BAS asked me for. I was told that a concept of the exhibition was already formulated, but about the period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, i.e. the centuries of the proper Ottoman presence in the Balkans and that the idea of the colleague was to present the ‘interaction’ between the Islamic and Christian arts within the Bulgarian lands. Even this chosen chronological span caused puzzlement as the periods 15th–17th cc. or 15th – 19th cc. are more consistent with the stages and underlying logic of development of Bulgarian art. This choice of a concept was explained to me with the fact that Ms Charlotte Maury herself was an Ottomanist historian and the artefacts would be put on display in the Islamic Art Department, in the vaults of the Louvre. She already had conducted her research and gathered photographs of the exhibits from Bulgarian collections, including icons and church plate. Such a selection is, however, tendentious and based on the hardly provable assumption that certain decorative elements of these cultic artefacts have been influenced by the coetaneous Islamic art. Any ‘interactions’ between Islamic and Christian arts, almost missing in that period, were marginal and at a purely decorative level and had in no way influenced their mutually exclusive natures. The idea to mount such an exhibition, until recently coupled with the idea of holding a colloquium, is not a novelty. The thesis of our colleague Liliana Stankova, dealing exactly with the Ottoman influence on Bulgarian Christian art, categorically showed the strongly limited and sporadic evidence of examples of Islamic motifs in Christian art within the Bulgarian lands, especially when it comes to the liturgical books, their illumination and iconographic solutions. Arabic motifs occurred in the illumination of Byzantine manuscripts as early as the twelfth century, but translated into the art of the rest of the Orthodox peoples profoundly changed and void of their Islamic essence, i.e. such strongly limited interactions were not direct either. The so-called pseudo-Kufic decoration on the external walls of Byzantine churches occurred in the same period, but it resembled the Arabic script to avert evil influences, i.e. served an apotropaic function, addressing the Islamic threat. Besides, it is difficult to fathom to whom particularly the everyday objects, also supposed to be put on display, belonged. The 16th–17th secular art, on the other hand, is impossible to be given a well-balanced presentation in the same exhibition, as that was a period when the Bulgarians within the Ottoman Empire were reduced to rayah (non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire), poor, without administration of their own, without coinage, isolated and deprived of commercial contacts outside the empire, which underpinned the entire Balkan Enlightenment and respectively, the Christians’ prosperity as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the period between the fifteenth and the eighteenth the churches of Bulgarian worshipers with their more or less valuable artefacts were the sole representative buildings.

Apart form the above, the period of Bulgarian National Revival is excluded from the exhibition for some inexplicable reason, as it was a time when various influences permeated more tangibly every aspect of life and art across the Bulgarian lands; inexplicable is also the reason as to why a French researcher wants to show the climate of art interactions in the light of the Ottoman studies, of the ruling wealthier ethnos, rather than showing the ‘alafranga’ (i.e. in the French manner) fashion, for instance, across these lands. The European influences of the style initially filtered through the Ottoman culture to be later adopted by the Christian subjects to the Sultan. ‘Interactions’ could be also traced, for example, in the relations between the Catholic and Orthodox arts alongside the role of Bulgarian Catholics in the shaping of the visual culture of the period, etc.

The idea of Ms Charlotte Maury is in fact to е show that Muslims lived and made art in the Bulgarian lands between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries and their art had influenced not only the life of the Christian subjects, but had also permeated the intimate sphere of their religious life. This is the reason why she wants to draw parallels between the decoration of Korans and communion-table gospels, which in addition to being sacrilege is profoundly wrong scientifically, because Islam is an aniconic religion that in the period under consideration was aggressive towards the Christians in the Ottoman Empire. And last but not least, it is worth noting that such a concept of an exhibition intended to present Bulgaria at the Louvre, can in no way be the cause of the contemporary Bulgarian state with its cultural and research institutions, which are tolerant and pluralistic, but only within the framework of historical objectivity and scholarly deontology. Such exhibitions ought to convey a clear message not only to the narrowly focused communities, but also to the general public. Just imagine the Russian Federation staging an exhibition at the Louvre dedicated to the cultural interactions between the Russians and the Mongols-Tatars in the period when Kievan Rus was under the Golden Horde for about 250 years (1237–1480); or Germany presenting the influence of German culture on the life and art of the Greeks during the occupation of 1941–1944!

The argument that the period covered by the Bulgarian exhibition was an Ottoman one as well as that a possible department of the Louvre that could host such a display, was that of Islamic Art, can be refuted by the long-time recommendation to the museum to open at long last a department of Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) art (in this regard it is recommendable to read the article Why the Louvre needs a Byzantine art section by Dr Emily L. Spratt, Princeton University, published in Apollo, the international art magazine, February 2, 2018; ). Islamic art within the Bulgarian lands between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, which has been established to have had very limited influence on the visual culture of the subject peoples of different faiths, may be presented only by religious institutions related to that denomination as well as by the Republic of Turkey that recently lays claims to the Ottoman heritage.

I urge the hierarchs of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the colleagues from museums, libraries, institutes and galleries, to whom the letter Ref. No. 91-00-15 of 5 July 2019 by the Minister of Culture is addressed, not to provide exhibits for the exhibition offered by Ms Charlotte Maury. In addition, in the light of the above I call on Minister Boil Banov to refuse any participation in an exhibition built around such a concept and propose to develop the idea of an exhibition of the Christian Art in the Bulgarian Lands (15th–19th cc.) with the participation of a curator of the Bulgarian party, as well as to require the Louvre to name a contact person curator, who holds a PhD degree at the least. The proposed exhibition may be put on display in the Paintings or Sculptures Departments of the Louvre.

A letter to this effect, Ref. No. 181-RD-08, was sent to Minister Boil Banov as early as 8 January 2019, signatories to which were I, the director of Prof. Ivan Dujčev Centre for Slavo-Byzantine Studies (University of Sofia) and of the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum, BAS, the then Deputy Rector (Research & Art and Creative Activities) of the National Academy of Art; the Chairperson of the Steering Committee of the Association of Bulgarian Restorers. No answer has been received so far and it is the news media that supply information about the exhibition: even icons from Nessebur, church plate and manuscripts would allegedly be put on display.

Impressively, reporters are spared the information that half of a total of 60 items from Bulgarian collections, planned to be exhibited at the Louvre, will not be related to the life and art of the Christians in the Bulgarian lands. In other words, icons will be on display next to yataghans, janamaz prayer mats, ablution jugs and Korans to demonstrate how peacefully cultures co-existed and even interpenetrated each other at an artistic level within these Ottoman territories in the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. It is unclear whether a scientific committee has been appointed and what the opinion of the members is on at least the title of the exhibition, Art and Cultures in Bulgaria (16th–18th cc.), as there was no such thing as ‘Bulgaria’ in the period under consideration, and only the Bulgarian lands under the Ottomans may be referred to …The concept of the exhibition devised by Paris is once again about the old notorious West-European views on the Bulgarians as part of European Turkey, formulated back in the late nineteenth century, for instance, in the book by James Baker, Turkey in Europe. London, Paris & New York, Cassel Petter & Galpin, 1877. And such a geopolitical idea of a pitiful and controversial presentation of cultural interactions underlies contemporary neo-Ottomanism.

The third “Bulgarian” exhibition at the Louvre presents us as European Turkey

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